Tourney time for Gators
GAINESVILLE — Florida coach Mike White believes anything can happen in a conference tournament.
White and the Gators are counting on it.
Having lost five of seven games down the stretch, Florida goes into the Southeastern Conference Tournament this week needing to win at least two games just to get back into the NCAA Tournament conversation.
The eighth-seeded Gators (18-13) play No. 9 seed Arkansas (16-15) on Thursday, with the winner advancing to face top-seeded Texas A&M (24-7) on Friday.
“Beat Arkansas. That’s all we can worry about really,” White said Monday. “I mean, at the end of the day, it comes down to those people in that room, those decisions that they make. I can make arguments for us right now in terms of our schedule strength. ... But I think it’s fruitless to waste time and energy on any of that. It takes away from your focus on the Hogs.”
Florida appeared to be lock for the NCAA field after upsetting then-No. 9 West Virginia in late January. But the Gators faded in February, going 3-5 and losing several close games. They had a chance to turn things around last week against then-No. 22 Kentucky, but got blown out at home to extend their losing streak to four.
Florida bounced back at Missouri, beating the league’s worst team, but still has work to do to get off the NCAA Tournament bubble.
“It’s very exciting. You got a clean slate. It’s a new season,” guard Chris Chiozza said. “But it’s also if you lose you go home. So it’s a little scary, but like coach White said to us the other day in the locker room, ‘Sometimes fear is a little bit better motivator than anything else.’
“So hopefully we come out a little scared to lose and play to win. And hopefully we can win four in four days and get to the tournament.”
Chiozza is coming off his best performance of the season. He scored 17 points on 5-of-8 shooting against the Tigers to go along with eight assists, seven rebounds and three steals.
It was a big improvement from the previous eight games in which Chiozza averaged 6.1 points on 25-percent shooting. He also had 27 assists and 20 turnovers during that stretch.
“That was a great personal game for me,” Chiozza said. “Got my confidence on track, got in the groove like I was earlier in the year and it just felt like one of those games that I was having all the time at the beginning of the year. So hopefully this just gets me back to where I was at.”
It certainly should help the Gators get back on track.
Florida’s biggest weakness had been guard play, with Chiozza, Kasey Hill and KeVaughn Allen struggling at both ends of the court. How well the trio plays in the SEC tourney could go a long way in determining how far the Gators advance.
Regardless of what happens — even if the Gators don’t rebuild their NCAA resume — White feels like his team has played well in his first season.
The Gators had somewhat overachieved in early February, having lost four games to ranked teams (Purdue, Miami, Michigan State, Texas A&M) and two others on the road (Tennessee, Vanderbilt).
And even though Florida faltered late, four of the losses were against Kentucky, at LSU, against Vanderbilt and at South Carolina in overtime.
“Some can say over the last two or three weeks, ‘Boy, what happened?’” White said. “Well, we played some good teams. ... So we’re not apologizing for any of those games. We’re just not one of the best three or four teams in this league. We haven’t been that. We hope to be that moving forward.
“We’ve done a lot of good things as well. The opportunities are right there in front of us. Again, if we can somehow play well enough to beat the Hogs, we’ll take that next step if it presents itself.”